Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Aronofsky's Noah (the movie) vs. Aronofsky's Noah (the graphic novel)

There's still some eight months of 2014 left, but I'll be surprised if the rest of the year manages to include a less likely film than Noah, a $125 million, special effects-heavy, major studio-produced Biblical epic co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose filmography includes small, dark, strange films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wreslter and Black Swan.

Aronofsky and his regular co-writer Ari Handel pulled off a pretty neat trick with the film in that it's pretty faithful to its source material (at least as faithful to the book of Genesis as Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was to the Gospels), not subtracting much of anything, but merely adding, and adding between the lines, so that while the Bible story may not mention Noah lashing himself to the door of the arc and fighting off men trying to force their way on board, it doesn't say that didn't happen either, you know?

Aronofsky's visualizes his story in a way that's pretty mythical: The antediluvian world of Noah could be that of Genesis, so many generations after Adam and Eve left their garden. It could be set somewhere in the far-flung future, after our civilization has fallen and was forgotten. It could take place on another planet. Aronofsky's practically pre-historic world has a moon and stars that are always shining in the young sky, day or night, and the animals are all slightly off...out of the corner of a viewer's eye, they look like the animals of our world, but you won't be able to identify particular species.

Most of what will seem most head-scratching to many audiences actually is in the the Bible. There are many-limbed, stone-giants referred to as Watchers, which could correspond to the Nephillim or "sons of God" mentioned in a few cryptic lines of Genesis 6 1-6 (In Noah, these are angels who voluntarily fall to Earth in order to aid mankind, and are thus cursed by God; they nevertheless strive to teach mankind all they know). The villain of the piece, Tubal-cain, is mentioned briefly in one of the genealogical passages, specifically Genisis 4: 22, which refers to him as "an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron." And so on.

Aronofsky's biggest departures seem to be in service of making the story more "realistic," changing the dimensions of the ark into something that would actually be able to contains a pair of every animal on Earth, maybe (the Bible dictates its size at about 450-feet long, 50-feet wide, and 30-feet high), and solving other logistical problems (How did Noah and his sons build such a huge ship so quickly? The Watchers helped. How did they keep the animals obedient, fed and not eating one another? Herbal magic-induced suspended animation).

And then, of course, there's the weird third act, in which Aronofsky's Noah goes crazy and decides God wants to wipe all of humanity off of the Earth, and had only spared Noah and his family so that they could save the animals. When one of his daughter-in-laws, thought to be barren, is miraculously revealed to be pregnant, Noah swears to stab the child to death himself if its a girl, and thus capable of propagating the species. If all the fight scenes weren't enough to convince a viewer, this Noah is hardcore.

Looked at from one angle, this climactic plot seems a little silly, given there's certainly enough drama already in the story at that point, what with all of humanity consisting of just seven humans trapped on a wooden ship while the whole world is flooded. Looked at from another, Aronofsky is apparently looking at Noah as God's deputy and stand-in within the narrative, conflicted over whether or not to wipe all of humanity off the world or not.

Probably wisely, but controversially, Aronofsky chose not to put God in the film as a voice with spoken dialogue, the way he appears in Genesis. Rather, he communicates to Noah via dreams and visions, which may not be quite as clear as giving Noah particular measurements in cubits, but is certainly more cinematic, and relieves the filmmakers of having to depict God.

Paramount was apparently nervous about the way the film might be received, and screened three different cuts of the film to test audiences...without Aronofsky's knowledge All tested poorly, and, ultimately, the version that made it on to the screen was the version Aronofsky wanted. (This according to The Hollywood Reporter).

Or so he says. There is another version of the film available, one that is free of any budgetary concerns or input from actors: Before Noah the film was released, Noah the comic book, written by Aronofsky and Handel and lavishly illustrated by Niko Henrichon, was released.
While the basic story is the same, there are some very, very dramatic differences between the two, and while there's no reason to believe the graphic novel represents a more pure version of Aronofsky's conception of Noah, even if it predates the final film, it is interesting, if not revealing, and would at least seem to suggest concessions, compromises or choices that need to be made in a big, collaborative project involving hundreds of people versus one that involves just three.

Noah isn't the first Aronofsky film project to also become a graphic novel. Aronofsky's original script for The Fountain was adapted into a 2005 graphic novel by artist Kent Williams and released on DC's Vertigo imprint. At that point, the in-and-out-of-development project had stalled out...before Warner Brothers (the studio and corporate parent of DC Comics) resurrected the film, which ultimately saw release in 2006.

Something similar happened with the Noah graphic novel. Aronofsky and Handel gave Henrichon, the artist of Pride of Baghdad, a draft of the script, which he then began working on...years before they started production on the film. That accounts for many of those differences between the two.

Here are a few of the more noteworthy differences I noticed...

1.) Henrichon's Noah is basically Conan. I suppose the artist began designing and drawing before an actor was attached—and according to the IMDb trivia page for the film, Christian Bale and Michael Fassbender were offered the part and declined—but I was struck by how much the Noah he draws resembles the comic book version of Robert E. Howard's barbarian creation.

In the film, Noah's appearance changes rather radically several times. In the beginning, he has a short-ish beard and long hair, much of it pinned up and out of his face. When the time comes to build the ark, he has a close-shaven head and a big, bushy beard. And by the end of the film, his hair has grown out and turned gray-white, as has his beard.

The graphic novel Noah remains this big, hulking, heroic figure throughout, although he eventually sheds the superhero cape he's shown wearing in the earlier scenes.

2.) Noah's first fight. When the film opens, Noah and his two eldest sons are hunting for herbs when they spy three men chasing some kind of dog-like animal down for food. This is a bit ambiguous in the Bible, the most common reading is that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve at only plants, and lived as perfect vegetarians. It's not until after the flood that God gives humanity "dominion" over the animal kingdom, and permits them to eat flesh. Noah and his family are vegetarian, while the rest of the people are meat-eaters; it's one of the ways Aronofsky contrasts Noah and his family's way of life with the decadent life of the descendants of Cain (i.e. the rest of the world).

So in the film, three men corner a strange creature that looks a bit like a wild dog with scales or dull feathers of some sort on it. Russell Crowe's Noah kicks their asses and totally kills the three of them.

In the graphic novel, the scene is quite different. There's a huge hunting party of men, and their prey is some sort of wooly rhinocerous, a once extant, now extinct animal (in contrast to the fantasy dog-creature). And as that first panel shows, they are seemingly after the ivory of the cratures' horns, moreso than their flesh ("One beast could feed them all, but they hunt for the only useless part," Noah tells his sons. "They think it has power. But it is just like our hair, our nails. Dead flesh. They kill life for this dead thing.").

Noah scares most of the hunters away by throwing bags of something-or-other that explode like fireworks. A small group of armed men remain, and Noah fights them. He kicks their asses, but doesn't kill them...they run off.

3.) The city. One aspect of the film I found disappointing was that it told us off great cities of man that were draining the life from the earth and spoiling all around them, but we never actually see any of these cities...only from a satellite's point-of-view on a computer-generated imager of a globe.

In the graphic novel, after he has his first vision of a drowned world and realizes The Creator means to destroy the world, Noah takes it upon himself to worn his fellow man, despite knowing that, as his wife tells him, they won't listen.

He journeys with his eldest son to "Bab-ilim," "A city so vast it took a planet of spoil to stuff its ravenous maw. And in the center, a great finger poking at the heavens: The tower."
If that sounds a bit like another story from Genesis, I'm sure that's no coincidence.

This is the city that Tubal-cain rules as king. The graphic novel features a seven-page sequence in which Noah visit the city to address its people—some of whom call him "The Mage"—and warn them of the coming judgement. Tubal-cain interrupts him, tells him off, and has him thrown in the gutter outside of town. Tubal-cain and his men mount big, fat, weird, spotted horses. "Your visit to my home is over, Mage," Tubal-cain tells Noah. "Next, I visit yours."

They burn down Noah's camp and slaughter the animals he and his family keep in a sort of makeshift animal hospital, but Noah's family have hidden themselves, and are safe and waiting for Noah to return. Nevertheless, Noah takes his family on their journey to Mount Arrart to see his grandfather.

I'm not sure why this scene wasn't included in the film, as contrasting Noah and his family's way of life with that of the rest of the humanity seems like a pretty important part of the conflict, and, as I said, the film alludes to such cities without ever showing them. I can only conclude that it was a budget thing.

In any case, it's one of the many examples of the graphic novel working as a supplement to the film, showing an interested party things that didn't make it into the film—for whatever reason.

4.) Noah's wife doesn't have much to do. In the film, Jennifer Connelly play's Naameh, Noah's wife. When their family discovers a badly injured, dying girl named Ila (Emma Watson), Naameh looks at her wound and heals her. Throughout the film, Naameh is portrayed as a healer and an expert with herbs and potions—she's the one who concocts the suspended animation incense and, later, an pregnancy test made out of a leaf, water and blood.

In the graphic novel, Noah does all the healing and all the herbalism and magic stuff. It doesn't necessarily hurt the graphic novel that this is the case, but as to why the change was made, I have to assume that at some point someone figured that it was a little weird that the only female characters in the movie were basically just there to have kids and/or occasionally stand by their men; that, or Aronofsky or Paramount or whoever decided if they were gonna have Jennifer Connelly in their movie, they might as well give her something to do.

5.) The Watchers. That's what The Watchers in the graphic novel look like. They are flesh and blood creatures, and very humanoid in appearances, with eyeballs and nostrils and teeth and muscles and fingers and loin cloths and tattoos and jewelry.

The Watchers in the movie are rock giants, stone versions of the Ents from Lord of the Rings. I didn't care for the design (I don't care for this design, either), but their appearance made a sort of sense: As one of them explains when telling Noah of their fallen angel origins, they were once beings of light, and when they rebelled and fell to Earth, they landed like meteors, their bodies of light melting the stone around them into molten rock, which cooled around their angelic bodies, trapping them in awkward stone prison-like bodies.

The scene with The Watchers plays out rather differently here as well; it's longer, and involves a visit to their home, which is another elaborate set that didn't make it into the film.

6.) Methuselah. So, that's the guy they cast Anthony Hopkins to play.

As with Jennifer Connelly's character, he has quite a bit more to do, and quite a few more lines, in the film than the graphic novel. Again, I suspect that has something to do with the fact that they didn't want to hire Hopkins and then only give him two scenes and 25 lines.

7.) The kicking of Ham's "wife" to the curb. Because they too are human, every member of Noah's family has some sin, some blemish, some imperfection about them. Ham's is his envy of his older brother, and his older brother's relationship with their adopted sister, Ila (who, remember, looks like Emma Watson).
He wants to find a wife among the throngs of people camped near the ark, and sets off to do so just before the storm starts.

In the film, Noah runs out into the makeshift refugee camp of humanity in order to find his son and get him on the ark in time. When Noah does find Ham, he has already found, befriended and apparently convinced a young woman to come with him and be his wife. When they are recognized, they are chased back to the ark, and, on the way, the girl's ankle is caught in a booby trap Noah had set to keep people away.

He tries for a second or two to save her, but abandons her to save himself and his son, and she is trampled to death.

In the graphic novel, his responsibility for her death is a lot lets equivocal. Noah rides the shoulders of a Watcher into the camp and rescues Ham and Ham's would-be wife (who were previously rescued by Tubal-cain), and brings them back to the ark. But when the time comes to seal the ark, Noah throws her out to die with the rest of humanity. When Ham protests, he simply responds like a frustrated parent sick of the front door slamming open and shut on a summer afternoon: "In or out?"

Ham stays in.

So here, Noah not only doesn't provide a wife for Ham, he not only fails to save the one Ham chose for himself, but he actually sentences her to death, kicking her off the ark.

8.) The scene where Noah tells his family the first creation story in the Book of Genesis is much more beautiful in the film. Both take the "days" as metaphors, and are pretty blatantly pro-evolution, but it looks a lot cooler the way its presented in the film, as we follow evolving life as it travels over a changing world, rather than these static images.

9.) The climax. This is where things really depart quite dramatically from the film. If you've seen it—and I'm assuming you did, otherwise this post is really just going to spoil the experience of watching it—then you know that Tubal-cain has snuck aboard the ark, and that he's conspiring with Ham to maybe kill Noah or something (In the film, it's not clear how far Ham is willing to go—in the film, Noah wasn't as directly responsible for the death of his would-be wife as comics-Noah was).

And, at the same time, Noah's developed ark madness, and is pissed at his wife for having Anthony Hopkins magically repair Ila's womb, which is now full of a girl baby.

In the film, Ila and Shem plan to set sail on their own two-person ark before her baby is born, so Noah can't kill it, as he says he will. Noah sets their little boat on fire before they can leave. Here, a monstrous fish eats it.

God, it seems, is on Noah's side here...or at least the animals are. In the comic, things get weird.

Now, these plots are all resolved more-or-less at the same time in the film, whereas in the comics, Tubal-cain's attempt to kill Noah and Noah's attempt to kill his newborn grandchild are two distinct beats.

In the comic, when Ila's about to give birth, she and Naameh hole up in a specially prepared corner of the ark. Jap and Ham have lined it with pointed stakes, and stand guard in front of it with weapons. Noah, meanwhile, prays, ritually cleanses himself, puts on a robe and then stalks toward Ila's babies—twin girls, it turns out—with an army of animals.
In the course of the battle, several species go extinct.

If, for example, you're wondering why there aren't any saber toothed cats around anymore, well, this is why:

The animal army takes the birthing chamber, with some big, scary ape-things breaking through the wall and holding down Shem—
—Gigantopithecus, maybe?

Meanwhile, smaller, less savage animals like birds and lizards and a pangolin hold the women down, while Noah takes the two baby girls to the roof of the ark to slay them and...shows mercy.

It's extremely different from how this all plays out in the film, with the exception of the fact that Noah intends to kill the baby girls and relents, convinced by Ila's love for them at the very last moment.

He then retreats into drunkenness—in the graphic novel, his Watcher friend Og gifts Noah with a grape vine-in-a-box, to help him dull the pain he knows Noah will face after his ordeal—here having a bit more to come to terms with.

The bit with animals is cool in that it shows the animals, who are oddly passive and confined to the margins of the film, and so damn weird, but I think it's awfully ambiguous, as it seems to imply that God is right there with Noah every step of the way (particularly the presence of the boat-eating monster fish, which couldn't be under any sort of herbal mind-control in the same way the ark animals might have been).

Of course, not long after this story of the Bible, God does tell Abraham to kill his own son, just to tell him not to at the last moment, so maybe this was simply God moving in those mysterious ways of his?

Anyway, it's quite different than how it goes down in the film, which makes it a welcome and interesting part of the comic.

10.) No rainbow. Actually, the "rainbow" in the movie is replaced by strange rings of rainbows pulsing from an orb. Here Henrichon just draws Noah taking his wife's hand, and a pretty sunset.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Man oh man, I wish they'd had the animals play that role. In the film they have even less power than the women...

Guessing this particular difference was a budgetary decision.